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The Litigated Dish: What are the symptoms of food poisoning?

Three weeks ago, I introduced my column, “The Litigated Dish,” to answer the Internet’s most frequently asked food safety questions. One particularly popular question, according to AnswerThePublic.com (a website that tracks the top Google searches), is “What are the symptoms of food poisoning?”

Much like my answer to last week's question, this question elicits a lawyer’s favorite response: “It depends.” Which foodborne illness are we talking about? Various bacteria, viruses, and parasites can be responsible for causing food poisoning.

But despite the diversity among the pathogens responsible for food poisoning, there are common symptoms shared by many, if not all, of these maladies. Primary among them is gastroenteritis—a short-term illness triggered by the infection and inflammation of the digestive system—characterized by abdominal cramps, diarrhea, and nausea and/or vomiting. TMI warning: if one contracts Salmonella, Shigella, or Campylobacter, the diarrhea may contain blood. E. coli, another bacterium, can induce hemorrhagic colitis, characterized by minimal stool and large amounts of blood.

Fever, chills, fatigue, and loss of appetite are additional symptoms common to many foodborne illnesses. While many symptoms overlap, however, some distinct signs may be linked to specific pathogens. For instance, in severe cases, Listeria (especially affecting pregnant women, older adults, and individuals with compromised immune systems) can present with headache, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance, and other classic signs of meningitis. Botulism can manifest as difficulty in speaking or swallowing, dry mouth, facial weakness or paralysis, blurred or double vision, and respiratory failure. Hepatitis A, a highly contagious liver infection, can result in jaundice—yellowing of the skin and eyes.

Additionally, infection by different pathogens can lead to diverse long-term consequences—but I think I will save that for my next post.

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